Dan DunnDan Dunn

What happens when the worst happens? Thorough risk management requires planning for multiple scenarios: natural disasters, fires, supply chain disruptions, etc. Response depends on the crisis, but you’ll have to communicate quickly with employees, customers, vendors and maybe law enforcement, media and government officials. There’s no business as usual when a crisis is unfolding, so have a crisis communication plan in place before you need it and include these four steps.

Step 1: Assess the situation

Think of this step as a kind of “communications triage.” Bring managers and representatives from all affected divisions together and evaluate the situation.

Questions to answer at this initial stage include:

• What happened? Save recriminations and what-ifs for later. Just get the facts so you can react appropriately. Finger-pointing only wastes time.

• How does it affect our customers? Consider both long- and short-term implications. For instance, a service logistics company must quickly determine how the issue affects customers’ supply chain needs and inventory levels.

• How long will it take to fix the problem? Customers expect — even demand — reliable estimates on the timeframe.

• What's the backup communication plan? During a natural disaster, for example, power may be out for days, disabling both internet and cell tower communications (particularly if thieves have stolen the backup batteries). Even backup generators won’t help if the underlying infrastructure is damaged. Also, have a backup plan for email in case the issue is company servers. That could be Slack, Skype, social messaging, cellphones, or another method. Multiple redundancies make the system more reliable.

• Who needs to be notified? Determine all the key stakeholders (executives, employees, partners, vendors and customers) who need immediate contact. It may be all, some, or none of the customers, depending on the situation.

• What's the best way to communicate the message? Options: personal phone calls, emails, instant messaging (Slack, Skype, etc.), alerts posted on the company website and, in some cases, press releases. Ideally, use as many as possible to quickly communicate the facts. In some situations, it may be best to have the employee with the strongest relationship to the customer reach out in person. Calls are more immediate and increase the likelihood a message will be received in timely fashion, as opposed to an email which can be easily overlooked. The best solution might include multiple forms of communication, such as an email with a follow-up call.

• Who's the designated spokesperson? Reporters will seek out people if you don’t provide someone, even going so far as to cold call employees and ask them to comment. Make sure employees are aware of any company policy that prohibits them from speaking with the media on behalf of the organization. One idea involves creating business cards with contact info for the communications department and instructions about what to tell a reporter.

Step 2: Communicate internally and externally

Now it’s time to execute the plan created in Step 1. Remember: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Earlier this year, United Airlines, when confronted with the PR disaster of a bloodied traveler dragged off a plane, responded initially with what The Hill called an “overly legalistic response.” The airlines explained that employees “followed proper procedure.”

Before you issue a public statement, make sure employees have seen and understand the content. Give them a chance to offer constructive feedback if possible, but set a deadline to ensure quick response. Get everyone on the same page so that customers and vendors get reliable, consistent information. The last thing you want is a customer getting information that contradicts what an employee has told them.

Step 3: Follow up after the crisis is resolved

Don’t leave internal or external customers guessing. Let them know when the situation has been resolved so that there are no unanswered questions. If the crisis was handled properly, they might not even remember it a few months from now.

Step 4: Debrief stakeholders and detail lessons learned

What went right and what went wrong? Once the situation has been resolved, meet with all stakeholders and discuss what happened, why it happened, and if the actions taken were successful. This gives you a chance to identify opportunities to improve the process.

A solid communications plan can determine whether the disruption is just a short-term blip or a major PR disaster that causes long-term damage to the organization’s reputation and bottom line. Plan now or pay later.


Dan Dunn is the director of global communications at Flash Global, which designs and implements end-to-end service supply chain strategies for rapidly expanding companies